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A Moment in Time With Siba Mtongana

She needs no introduction – from bestselling cookbooks to international awards, Siba Mtongana has made her mark with culinary delights that fill the stomach and soul. And she’s got more up her sleeve, says Editor Chad January. 

It’s magic. When she thinks back to her days in the kitchen with her mom cooking up a storm without the aid of recipe books, measurements and precise ingredients, there’s no better way to describe it. 

Her mom, fondly known as Mthobo wo Lwazi (which translates to ‘well of wisdom’), was full of all those things. She just threw in a little bit of that, some of this and it always tasted scrumptious. This is the woman who became her culinary hero as a child. 

But little Siba was always curious about the how. What gave the food texture and taste? And with those sessions, a foodie – to put it mildly – was created. 

A moment in time 

“Good morning,” Siba Mtongana sings as she struts onto set, her radiant smile lighting up the entire studio. To watch Siba in action is quite something – it’s in the way she can laugh at herself, pulling a funny face, or the fact that any time one of us started singing Beyoncé on set, she’d break into a choreographed dance, straight from the music video. This is a woman who knows how to be loved by a crowd. She immediately endears herself to the entire crew. But how could she not? It’s not just our crew who are enamoured, but the entire country. 

Siba’s journey to culinary success started way back, shored up by family foodie traditions and an innate love of food. Her mother Noliza Mnwana made it look so easy. Some of Siba’s fondest memories are of being seated at the kitchen table at home, watching her mother craft delicious traditional meals for the family right in front of her eyes. “My mother’s kitchen was not very big, quite homey and the backdoor led out down the steps into our beautiful back yard. The kitchen itself was quite well equipped, from blenders to non-stick pans as well as the usual traditional equipment you’d find in any black household. Having a blender was a status symbol,” Siba laughed, “as at that time, most households didn’t have those items yet. There was very little measuring when it came to quantities of ingredients, and there was no meticulous recipe step-by-step as most cooking was drawn from my mother’s experience,” she says.

When it came to the way her mother did things in the kitchen – like all the generations before her – cooking was always about feeling. With each mouthful, she captured Siba’s heart and her curiosity – and the need to delve deeper into the making of food grew with every plate. 

The making of a culinary star 

Today, the name Siba Mtongana is synonymous – both locally and internationally – with culinary greatness and the South African food scene. But this multi-hyphenate world renowned chef, cookbook author, restaurateur and business mogul is more than just the sum of her foodie parts – she is also a mother to four children, Lonwabo, Linamandla, Buhle (also known as sister boss) and Nthando, and a wife to Brian. In short, she’s living her dream.  

It was not an easy task for Siba to convince her parents Mncedisi and Noliza Mnwana that she wanted to pursue a career in food. At the time, celebrity chefs and TV cooking stars had not piqued local interest yet, so it was difficult for her parents to imagine a successful career in the food industry for a black woman in South Africa.  

Siba’s mother was convinced that although her daughter possessed the passion and love for food, she would still end up cooking for a “madam” in a suburban kitchen somewhere, with no room to create and inspire others. With this in mind, Siba knew that it was important that she studied, so that there would be a substantial professional backing to her dream. She got her degree in Food and Consumer Studies at CPUT in 2003 where she majored in Food Science and Nutrition. 

It was around this time that she also met her now-husband, Brian – her biggest supporter, and sometimes toughest critic. “Brian and I met just before I started studying, at the tender age of 17, and we started dating exactly a day after my 18th birthday,” Siba recalls. Her parents might have made them wait seven years to get married, but the pair are now an unbreakable unit. “My achievements are his achievements, as we’re a team, a partnership, and an empire,” she says. “I am grateful to my parents for making Brian wait until my studies had been completed before getting married, as it solidified my educational backing to get the foodie career I currently have.” 

A seat at the table 

While working at Drum magazine as food editor, recipe developer and food stylist, Siba embarked on this road to food fame with nothing but hope and a stash of lip-smacking recipes to share. This magazine position ignited the fire to inspire but it was the TV channel, Food Network, that allowed Siba the opportunity to be welcomed into our homes, hearts and kitchens with her own cooking show – Siba’s Table. 

The show transcended continent borders including around 60 million homes in the USA alone. Viewers adored her bubbly personality, her gorgeous smile and the way she could add a Sibalicious twist to any classic dish, elevating it in a way that is now her signature style. 

From page to screen to page 

With all the love and accolades pouring in from her cooking show, the loyal Siba fan base were hungry for more. Enter her first cookbook – Welcome to My Table. “What really pushed me towards this goal was an email from a mother of a nine-year old girl from the USA which I received in November 2014,” she tells us. “Her daughter had requested a copy of my cookbook as her Christmas gift but she could not find one – as one did not exist yet.” Siba and her team made the decision right there and then, that although this might be a daunting task, a cookbook was something that the followers were ready for, and they had to satisfy the craving. This book became an instant bestseller, winning Siba two prestigious awards at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in 2017. The best part? “A year after my book was published, I was able to meet the little girl and deliver her a signed copy in person. It was such an incredible moment for me.” 

An accolade worth mentioning is that Siba was contacted by Harvard Business School to become a case study in its MBA (Master in Business Administration) programme, where she shared her recipe for success. “Now, my case study is being taught as part of the curriculum, inspiring the lives of many and gives me a great sense of joy to have represented my country in this manner,” she muses. 

Siba was also the first-ever South African to have won the Special Award of the Jury for the legacy that her book leaves and the pop culture impact it has among us as South Africans. Her second book, Let’s Cook, was a completely different affair – geared towards kids and teens. Her narrative through food had changed ever so slightly since she became a mom of a “squad”, as she likes to call them.

It tastes like home 

“There’s something more meaningful and gratifying about the meals I prepare now, as they’re going to nourish my family and shape young palates, who will hopefully make smart food decisions as adults, deepening my connection with them,” she says.

Cooking with your little ones is something Siba encourages all parents and guardians to do. “It’s not always easy to do and our schedules do not always allow, but it can become very precious bonding time that they will cherish as they grow older. Any mother can attest to the fact that kids are generally picky eaters and it is a daunting task to encourage their culinary curiosity and instil a good relationship with food for their growing bodies. Now try being a foodie mogul and mom of four equally demanding young palates!” 

“I’ve always been a firm believer of one family, one meal. I know that each of my kids have their own tastes and preferences, but when it comes to dinner time, the squad needs to break bread together,” she says. 

Siba admits that her children are more willing to step out of their foodie comfort zone than she was when it comes to flavours and textures, as her family only cooked simple, traditional meals. “Lonwabo has become my ‘deputy chef’ in the kitchen as he’s my right hand when it comes to cooking. I rely on Buhle – my ‘food critic’ – to inspire the others to try new things as she’s quite an adventurous eater.” 

In this way, Buhle is the kind of sister who influences the taste buds of the rest of the squad. “I’m thankful that my career and our travels as a family have refined their palates from a very young age. This makes me confident in knowing that when they’re older, they’ll have a healthy relationship with food which is so important.” 

So what’s next for this Culinary Queen? We’ll let you in on a little secret: she’ll be gracing our TV screens again sooner than you think! And this is something that’s sure to make all Siba fans happy!  


Words by: Chad January
Photographs: Zhann Solomons 

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